Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb 4:14-16)
In the last lecture we saw the importance, in the counseling process, of loving the counselee. In this lesson I would like to help you understand how to get to know the counselee in such a way that you will be able to enter into their life and be able to help them in a deeply godly way.
The Wonderful Counselor
This text tells us that Jesus is the wonderful counselor because he understands our weaknesses, our fears, our trials, our circumstances. In another passage we are told that he even understands our sin, because he took our sins on his person and became a perfect sacrifice on our behalf (2 Cor. 5:21). In addition, Jesus knows and understands what we are going through and this makes him a great counselor. But he knows our weakness in two ways. He knows it because he suffered too, but he also knows it because he suffered until the temptations finally petered out. He experienced the full range of suffering, whereas we usually collapse before it is over. In the same way that Jesus knows us and our weaknesses, we need to get to know our friends and their weaknesses. We are not getting to know their weaknesses so that we can know things, but so that we can help them know themselves from a different vantage point—God’s vantage point.
Assumptions and Conclusions
When listening to a person telling their story, a couple of temptations need to be avoided. First, don’t assume anything. If you don’t know what a person means by a phrase, word, or idea simply ask them to clarify what they are talking about. Most of the time, you will be coming to a counseling situation from a very different place. They might be old, you young; they might be man, you a woman; they might have spent their early years in poverty, you in comparative wealth; there are any number of differences between you and every other person you will talk to and you want to be very careful that you don’t assume you know what they are talking about. Ask a lot of clarifying questions.
These clarifying questions come in at least three areas: First, clarify terms and terminology. What are they saying? What does it mean? Are they speaking English at all? Second, ask them to illustrate what they are talking about. Part of the process of data gathering is to get to know people through the stories of their life. Asking the counselee to give you a real-life example of what they are talking about will both make it clearer and will give you something to refer to later in the counseling process. Third, you will want to go into more detail later, perhaps, but it is often helpful to ask why people do what they do in the story they tell.
Data Gathering Questions
Be careful not to ask questions that can be answered with a “Yes,” “No,” or an “I don’t know.” What were you thinking? What happened? What did they say then? What were you feeling? What kinds of things were you trying to have happen as a result of what you did? ‘What’ questions make it almost impossible for the counselee to answer with short, meaningless, and useless answers. From these primary kinds of questions, you can move on to the standard why, how, how often, and when kinds of questions.
In addition to questions that lead to answers that actually help the process, it is usually good to ask questions in a logical order. The next question should come from the previous answer until the topic is expended or explained. Sometimes the situation might be pretty intense, and you will feel the need to jump around from topic to topic, just to keep things moving. But make note of those times and get back to them in the future. Sometimes counselees will attempt to distract you if you get too close to revealing their heart. People often want help, but they don’t want all the help God wants to give.
“X-Ray Questions” by David Powlison: (http://www.ccef.org/product-download/x-ray-questions-drawing-out-whys-and-wherefores-human-behavior)
Observing the Data
Once you have all the information, now what do you do? First, remember why you are here. You are here to help the counselee draw closer to God so that God can change her heart and make her more Christ like.
Second, with this in mind, begin translating everything into Biblical terms. If the counselee has been psychologized, this is a little bit more difficult, but I try to reconstruct everything and put it all into terms found in the Bible. For example, if the counselee is a young women who says she is bulimic. I might ask her to explain that in Biblical terms. Of course bulimia is not in the Bible, but self-love is. She might not know that is what is happening, so it gives me the opportunity to dig a little bit deeper when she explains what bulimia actually is. She throws up. Why? Because she thinks she is fat. Why? Because she isn’t as thin as her favorite movie star. Why is that important? Who says? Who says she should be as thin as her favorite movie star? Who says throwing up is a good idea? Where is God in all this? What would God say about who she is? Bringing the conversation to the Word of God helps clear up the problem from the fluff and in the end we see that she thinks wrongly about herself in a number of different ways and she is getting her information from all the wrong sources.
Third, I take the different events that have come up in conversation and I organize them according to how I think they will help me show the counselee her own heart. If she does not see her need for Christ in her life in specific ways, she will not be really helped. She might stop doing the things that are getting her in trouble or causing the presenting problem, but if she doesn’t go the heart of the problem, those symptoms of heart disease will come back again like before—perhaps stronger (Mt. 12:45), or they will just pop up again in some other manifestation. This organization might be the most emotional event first or the least. It might be the most recent historically, or it might be the most distant. I try to read the situation and seek God’s guidance and wisdom on how hard to push and how gentle to be. Sometimes people appreciate you not dumping the whole load at first, sometimes they get angry with you for taking so long when you knew all along.
Dealing with an Event
An event is a series of actions at a particular time, involving the counselee and some action, thought, or emotion that was sinful. The event focuses on the counselee. If there were others involved in the event, they are secondary to the counselee and what they did, said, felt, or thought. Keeping this distinction helps narrow down the event so that you can talk about it with the counselee in a controlled and dispassionate way.
I ask seven primary questions when I want to pursue an event: First, what was going on in this particular event? I’m simply trying to get the facts here. What happened, when, who was involved, where was it, etc.? Sometimes, one event turns in to several smaller events and each one can be talked about separately, but I try to talk about one at a time.
Second, I ask, what were you thinking or feeling as this event was unfolding? What I’m looking for here are motives, reasons, lords, rulers, slave drivers, things the counselee might blame her action on. I want her to begin to notice that she wasn’t just reacting. She was thinking and feeling things. Her response to those thoughts or feelings were what she chose to do based on something deeper within her. She is not automaton reacting like some kind of machine.
Third, I ask her, what she actually did. Based on what was happening, What did you do? Or perhaps what did you not do? This one is pretty straight forward. The stress was rising, the wire was getting tighter and tighter, things were getting hotter and hotter, everything finally snapped. And wham! All Hell broke loose.
Fourth, why did you pick that thing to do out of all the different things you could have done? What were you trying to have happen as a result of what you did? What were your goals? Why that and not something else?
Fifth, what happened as a result? Did you get what you were trying for? Or something else?
Sixth, what would God have asked you to do if you were ever in that situation again? This questions brings God into the story in a way that is very natural and doesn’t take all that much boldness. At this point, if you have picked good events and enough of them the counselee is pretty ready to talk about some solutions that don’t involve terrible consequences. At this point in the session the counselee has seen that her way of dealing with problems is not a very helpful solution and in fact usually causes more problems than they solve.
Finally, we ask, what might we do to prepare for the “next time.” How can we work with God’s way of doing things to ensure a godly outcome next time instead of the train wreck that has been the counselee’s life up this point. This is where real counseling begins. When the counselee sees their need for something bigger than themselves, they are usually ready to listen to the Word of God and to do what God has for them to do.
A Quick Word About Emotions
There has been much confusion over how emotions work. Some people think emotions lead us or guide us. And sometimes they do. But what is really happening is that emotions follow thoughts and intentions of the heart. Unless there is something wrong physically, emotions are expressions of thoughts. When a person thinks of something happy, his emotions kick in and he feels happy. When he thinks about something he doesn’t like, his emotions might kick in and he feels angry. But initially, emotions follow thinking. When strong emotions are elicited quickly and with great force, they may appear to be leading the charge, but this is a misunderstanding. It is most often a sign of a lack of self-control for a person to be led by their emotions. They aren’t really being lead this way, they are simply passing the buck and avoiding taking the responsibility for their thoughts and intentions. Emotions follow thinking. Sometimes the thinking doesn’t take very long to produce the emotion. Some people have pretty short fuses, but though it is quick, emotions still follow thinking.
X-Ray Questions, can be found on-line or as one of the chapters in Seeing with New Eyes, by David Powlison
Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands, by Paul Tripp
Feelings and Faith: Cultivating Godly Emotions in the Christian Life, by Brian Borgman